‘The Hunt for Veerappan’ Netflix docu-series review: Who was Veerappan, really?

Throughout the four episodes, the storyline, cinematography and editing keep the series engaging and riveting; director Selvamani Selvaraj almost pulls off what he sets out to achieve, despite coming close to devil-worshipping

Updated - August 05, 2023 03:21 pm IST

Published - August 05, 2023 02:18 pm IST

A still from ‘The Hunt for Veerappan’ 

A still from ‘The Hunt for Veerappan’ 

The new documentary series titled The Hunt for Veerappan, streaming on Netflix, throws light on the life and death of the forest brigand who was shot to death in 2004 by Special Task Force (STF) personnel from Tamil Nadu.  

The series opens with a question: “Who is Veerappan?” His wife Muthulakshmi says, “My husband. He will give his life to those he trusts. He will take the life of those who betray him.” She then chuckles. A household name in the 1990s, the dreaded criminal had led a life of plunder and bloodshed. Initially, he started as a poacher by killing tuskers for ivory; then, he smuggled sandalwood and abducted for ransom by leading an armed gang in the 8,000 km of forests linking Tamil Nadu and Karnataka. 

However, his earlier life of crime is not detailed in the four-part series that revolves around interviews of some of the authentic voices, such as his wife, his gang members, his village people, forest and police officers and a couple of journalists connected to his life during this period.

She narrates how he proposed to her when she was only 15 and how she fell for him, then 37 years old and slinging a gun on his shoulder instantly. As the series shows, she still is in awe of him, nearly 20 years after his death, justifying his acts as mostly retaliatory. 

Even early on in his life, he knew the ways of the forests and wildlife intimately. He claimed to have shot an elephant when he was only 12, and the money from it pushed him into the ivory trade with the help of a local dealer. 

The Hunt for Veerappan
Director: Selvamani Selvaraj
No of episodes: 4
Storyline: A documentary on the life of the poacher who conquered the jungles of south India, and became the subject of one of the biggest manhunts in the country

But there was competition, and he shot dead a rival gang after which he took refuge in the forests and started living there; his connections to local politicians on both sides enabled him to thrive. 

The Netflix series begins from the time both the States constituted the Special Task Force (STF) for the sole purpose of capturing him in 1990, after he killed four policemen in revenge for a record seizure of sandalwood. 

While the villagers and his gang members sympathise with him as the forest angel and king of forests — which millennials may tend to believe on seeing the documentary — he was no Robin Hood. He was known to be stingy and parted money only for his relatives. He engaged and used the villagers in the forest fringes as per his demands and through terror. What chance did the poor tribals have against the gangster leading over 100 armed men? There are no voices speaking of their plight at his hands.   

While there is sufficient praise for him in the documentary even by his rivals terming him as courageous and fearless, and a born guerilla (that he might have been as the forest was his home), the show’s second part — Bloodbath — clearly shows him for what he was; a cold-blooded murderer, and unremorseful to the very end.

The beheading of P. Srinivas, a deputy conservator of forests and head of STF, is a classic example. Srinivas, a Gandhian, had camped at his village Gopinatham and was ushering in welfare schemes in the village. Veerappan tricked him into coming into the forests, shot him, burnt the body and beheaded him. There are voices justifying his act as it came after his dear sister ended her life, for being friendly to Srinivas, who had got her a nurse job. 

While there is sufficient praise for Veerapan in the documentary even by his rivals, the show’s second part — Bloodbath — clearly shows him for what he was; a cold-blooded murderer, and unremorseful to the very end

While there is sufficient praise for Veerapan in the documentary even by his rivals, the show’s second part — Bloodbath — clearly shows him for what he was; a cold-blooded murderer, and unremorseful to the very end

This part, the most engaging, is like the dance of death, with macabre scenes of violence from both sides as the documentary also reveals the police brutality, mostly by the Karnataka STF personnel led by Shankar Bidari. It also details to an extent the tortures in the “workshop”. One officer proudly states he killed 13 gang members in revenge for the murder of his colleagues. Another one describes how eight suspects were lined up and shot.  The sequences, mostly sourced through old photographs and clippings, are blood-curdling and spine chilling. 

The human rights violations were common on the Tamil Nadu side also, as the STF and forest personnel were keen to get information about the forest brigand’s whereabouts, and so tortured the tribals living on the border. The incidents described in the lawyer Balamurugan’s Tamil novel Solakar Thotti was a major influence behind director Selvamani Selvaraj taking up this project. Sadly, the sufferings of the tribals find no space in the documentary, except for occasional references in the interviews. 

Although there was large-scale violence in the first half of the 1990s between the police and Veerappan’s gang, the series restricts itself to the most horrific incidents like the killing of seven people after the death of his accomplice, the police retaliation in Nallur, the ambush of STF SP Harikrishna and SI Shakeel Ahmed, and the use of landmines to kill 22 STF personnel traveling in police vans to capture him. At the end of the bloodbath, Veerappan’s gang was reduced from over 100 members to less than 10. Still, he remained elusive in the jungles. 

The third part, titled Revolutionary, details how he developed links with the Tamil Nadu Liberation Army and other ultra leftwing forces in the State, who wanted him to be a leader of the masses, and the kidnapping of Kannada matinee idol Rajkumar in 2000. While he fronted himself as a champion of Tamils by making demands that would never be accepted for the release of Rajkumar, Veerrappan wanted and settled for money of about Rs 10 crore, as Kolathur Mani reveals. There was no Tamil cause. By now, he was about 50, and the audio cassettes sent to his wife, reveal his desire to lead a normal life... another impossibility considering his past criminal life. Only once, the series show he was also a human. “When his daughter placed her head on his lap and slept, he was moved and there was a visible change,” recalls Muthulakshmi. 

The Way Out, the fourth part explains in detail how the Tamil Nadu STF — after realising that he couldn’t be captured inside the forests despite using the latest technologies or with the enormous manpower it possessed — tricked him outside to be ultimately shot dead while on his way to treat his cataract, and possibly to meet LTTE chief Velupillai Prabakaran in Sri Lanka. 

Perhaps for the first time, the series also reveals how N.K. Senthamarai Kannan, the then-STF SP responsible for intelligence and credited with luring out Veerappan, posed himself as ‘Mukilan’ the LTTE rebel who could provide the safe passage to Sri Lanka. The ‘trader’ — the conduit between the LTTE rebel and Veerappan — also tells his story, of how he, a father of an infant, approached the STF chief Vijay Kumar after meeting the forest brigand for the first time. 

It questions the methods of the police again when Mr Kannan is asked if it was ethical to use Veerappan’s family to lure him out, and then questions the encounter itself as many believed it was stage-managed. 

Throughout the four episodes, the storyline, cinematography and editing keep the documentary series engaging and riveting; it almost pulls off entirely what it sets out to achieve, despite coming close to devil-worshipping and nearly forgetting that he was pure evil.

The Hunt for Veerappan ends with a question. “What is valour?” the interviewer — probably the director himself — asks Veerappan’s wife. She rambles on. “Killing is not valour,” says the interviewer. She gasps. 

The Hunt for Veerappan is currently streaming on Netflix

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